Peter Pan (by Sir James M. Barrie; music & lyrics by Leonard Bernstein; produced by Peter Lawrence & R. L. Stevens) is 45 years old. But Peter has had his wish: he has never grown up, will be a boy forever. For the more discriminating theatergoer of ten or eleven, Barrie's fantasy is an absolute must; even for the parent at his side, it is oftener candy than medicine.
As a fairytale through which float and gleam all the magical, unmodified desires of childhood, Peter Pan can be rather touching at moments, and it is not too heavily coated with the stickier side of Barrie's charm. But for old and young alike, Peter Pan is most fun when it is pure fun. It comes into its own as a gaudy extravaganza about things that suddenly light up, crocodiles that have swallowed alarm clocks, houses that are slung together on the stage, pirates that fight Indians, children that can fly through the air.
All this, mingled with spots of dancing and pleasant Leonard Bernstein music, provides nice unorthodox eye & ear entertainment. Jean Arthur makes a brightly boyish Peter Pan, Boris Karloff an appealingly unctuous Captain Hook. At times the syrup gets pretty thick and the fantasy pretty thin; Peter. Pan is not Alice in Wonderland. It is much less dazzling as well as much less daring. But however little a masterpiece, the play is now safely a classic.
To many a first-nighter, puzzling over the biographical sketch in his Playbill, Jean Arthur may have seemed as ageless and mysterious as Peter Pan himself. The eight-line sketch offered little more than the fact that she was a famous screen star whose favorite film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Zealously shy and determined to cling to her privacy, Actress Arthur had ordered no more published. She also staunchly refused interviews, balked at a curtain speech, made it a point to flee from the theater (and stage-door crowds) without taking time to remove make-up or costume.*
Born Gladys Green in New York City only one year after Barrie wrote Peter Pan, Actress Arthur quit high school to become a model, went into the silent films in 1923, when she was 17. Dissatisfied with insipid ingenue roles in westerns and comedies, she spent three years on Broadway (1932-34) in five forgotten plays until Hollywood consented to give her parts more to her liking. Her stubborn insistence on fighting for scripts she wanted and her taste in choosing themhas given her a long string of movie hits. The latest: A Foreign Affair (1948). Her present contract commits her to three more films, allows her to act on Broadway.
She returned to the stage in 1945 to play the lead in Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, quit the cast during the out-of-town tryout, leaving the role (and stardom) to Judy Holliday. For Peter Pan, her first Broadway hit, she studied fencing and ballet, sheared her hair to a near crewcut, left her husky, quavery voice exactly as movie fans have always known it.
* Publicity-shy Maude Adams, who originated the role in the U.S. in 1905, also left from the stage door in costumeso that children waiting outside would not be disillusioned at finding her a woman.